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This time, the new PennCards will work, officials say. After a chaotic beginning to the fall semester -- when many of the new student identification cards didn't work properly, causing massive delays and raising security concerns at dormitories and dining halls -- administrators say they've extensively tested the cards' new debit function and are ready to implement the project's next phase starting next week. Although students were originally supposed to be able to use the card's gold chip -- which can carry $50 in portable cash -- by last September, officials "decided to slow it down and do it right" to avoid a repeat of the delays and security problems, according to Laurie Cousart, director of telecommunications and campus card services. "We wanted to step back and make sure that kind of stuff didn't happen," said Cousart, who oversees the Penn-Card project. If all goes as planned, students will be able to use the cash chip for vending, laundry and copy machines throughout campus by the end of next week. Also, about 30 local merchants and food outlets are interested in installing devices that read the Penn-Card's cash chip or magnetic strip, Cousart said. Students may add value to the chips at any of the 5-foot-tall "card value centers" around campus. Two machines have already been installed -- one in the Quadrangle's McClelland Hall and one in the PennCard Center at 38th and Walnut streets -- and should be operational next week. Although officials haven't yet determined the final locations for the devices, they expect to install "probably 15" machines by February. Tentative sites include inside of several dormitories, the Class of 1920 Dining Commons, Van Pelt Library and the Johnson Pavilion, according to Cousart. Additionally, the University is installing card readers around campus to allow PennCard holders to use hundreds of washers and dryers, vending machines and copy machines in University buildings and dormitories. But after the project delays and problems with the cards this semester, the new PennCards' main competitors expressed skepticism that University officials will successfully launch the debit system next week. "They keep talking about the storm, and it hasn't started raining yet," said Matthew Levenson, one of four 1997 Wharton graduates who founded a company last year that offers the QuakerCard, a popular, free debit card for students. About 35 merchants around campus accept the QuakerCard, including all eight restaurants inside the food court at 3401 Walnut Street. Merchants must use separate devices to accept the two cards. QuakerCard merchants get the card readers for free but must pay a "small" percentage of revenue from QuakerCard purchases to University Student Services Inc., which offers the cards. Merchants who wish to buy a Penn-Card unit must lease the machines and pay a percentage of revenue to PNC Bank Corp., which is marketing and selling the units for the University. Monthly costs and fees for the machines weren't immediately available last week. Officials sent letters November 10 to about 230 merchants in University City in an attempt to enroll a "wide variety" of businesses in the new program. Cousart described the 30 positive replies she received from area merchants as "a pretty good response for a week's time." No merchants have signed a contract to accept the new cards yet. "We expect there to be a pretty broad interest" from merchants, Cousart said. But Levenson said he isn't worried the PennCard will take business or potential business away from his company, and refused to say how many students have QuakerCards. In September, University Student Services officials had said they have "significantly" more than 3,000 students using the cards. With the PennCards, by contrast, more than 10,000 of the University's 20,000 students have the new cash-chip cards, although exact figures weren't immediately available. All the old cards should be replaced by June, Cousart said. But even when all students and faculty members receive the new cards, the program's success will ultimately depend on how many people use the debit chips. Levenson said a similar program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor hasn't been successful. Many of the 85 Ann Arbor merchants that accept Michigan's "Mcard" are "unenthused" that they had to pay for the card readers, he said. And the Michigan official who overadmitted that the program has only been "moderately successful," as fewer people than expected use the card's $50 cash chip. "It's just a new way of spending money, and it takes a while to convince people that they should try it," Michigan Assistant Director of Financial Operations Robert Russell said. Michigan has issued about 75,000 of the cash-chip cards to students, faculty members and staff since the program began in 1995. Penn began issuing its new cards in late August, allowing students with accounts at PNC Bank or the University of Pennsylvania Student Federal Credit Union to use the cards at Money Access Center machines. Students who have an MBNA America Bank credit card will be able to transfer funds to the cash chip. If a cardholder loses the PennCard, the cash on the chip is not refundable. QuakerCard users, by contrast, do not lose money if they misplace their cards. The debit functions are part of a deal, announced last March, among the University, UPSFCU, PNC Bank and MBNA Corp. Under the agreement, the University will receive $6 million over the next five years in return for adding cash, bank and credit-card functions to its student ID cards.

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